Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Archive for July 2011

Mapping project dialogues using IBIS – a paper preview

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Work commitments have conspired to keep this post short. Well, short compared to my usual long-winded essays at any rate. Among other things, I’m currently helping  get a biggish project started while also trying to finish my current writing commitments in whatever little free time I have.  Fortunately, I have a ready-made topic to write about this week:  my recently published paper on the use of dialogue mapping in project management.  Instead of summarizing the paper, as I usually do in my paper reviews, I’ll simply present some background to the paper and describe, in brief, my rationale for writing it.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am a fan of dialogue mapping,  a conversation mapping technique pioneered by Jeff Conklin. Those unfamiliar with the technique will find a super-quick introduction here.  Dialogue mapping uses a visual notation called issue based information system (IBIS) which I have described in detail in this post.  IBIS was invented by Horst Rittel as a means to capture and clarify facets of   wicked problems – problems that are hard to define, let alone solve.  However, as I discuss in the paper, the technique also has utility in the much more mundane day-to-day business of managing projects.

In essence, IBIS provides a means to capture questions,  responses to questions and arguments for and against those responses. This, coupled with the fact that it is easy to use, makes it eminently suited to capturing conversations in which issues are debated and resolved. Dialogue mapping is therefore a great way to surface options, debate them and reach a “best for group” decision in real-time. The technique thus has many applications in organizational settings. I have used it regularly in project meetings, particularly those in which critical decisions regarding design or approach are being discussed.

Early last year I used the technique to kick-start a data warehousing initiative within the organisation I work for. In the paper I use this experience as a case-study to illustrate some key aspects and features of dialogue mapping that make it useful in project discussions.  For completeness I also discuss why other visual notations for decision and design rationale don’t work as well as IBIS for capturing conversations in real-time. However, the main rationale for the paper is to provide a short,  self-contained introduction to the technique via a realistic case-study.

Most project managers would have had to confront questions such as “what approach should we take to solve this problem?” in situations where there is not enough information to make a sound decision. In such situations, the only recourse one has is to dialogue – to talk it over with the team, and thereby reach a shared understanding of the options available. More often than not, a  consensus decision emerges from such dialogue.  Such a decision would be based on the collective knowledge of the team, not just that of an individual.  Dialogue mapping provides a means to get to such a collective decision.

From here to serendipity: gaining insights from project management research

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I’ve been blogging for over three years, during which I’ve written a number of reviews and summaries of research papers  in project management and related areas.  Research papers aren’t exactly riveting reads;  at times it seems  they are written to impress academics rather than inform laypeople.  Nevertheless, it is useful to read papers because it can lead to insights that are directly applicable to professional practice.   The main difficulty in doing this lies in finding papers that are relevant to one’s professional interests.  In this post I discuss how one can go about finding the “right” papers to read.  Further, as an illustration of how such random reading can lead to unexpected insights, I list some of the things I’ve learnt in the course of my rambles through project management research.

Prospecting for papers

My primary source for research papers is Google Scholar, which I browse in a somewhat haphazard fashion.  I usually start a search with a couple of key phrases denoting a broad area – for example “risk analysis” and “project management”.  I then browse the resulting list, short-listing titles that catch my attention. I read the abstracts of these, and make an even shorter list of those that I feel I’d like to read in full.  Google Scholar has a “Related Articles” link below each result. I often follow this link for articles that I find particularly interesting.  This usually yields a few more papers of interest.

Once I’ve determined the articles I want to read, I attempt to locate and download copies of these. This isn’t always straightforward: many papers cannot be accessed in full because they are copyrighted by journal publishers and are available only through paid subscriptions. However, many are available on author and university websites.  Google Scholar helpfully highlights those that are available for download. Journal archives, such as JSTOR,  are also good sources for copies of papers, but full access is usually available only to subscribers (check with your local university or public library system for more).

I then browse through the articles I’ve downloaded, printing out only those that that I think are worth a careful read. Yes, this choice is based on my subjective judgement, but then life’s too short waste time reading what others find interesting.  That said, if one wants a more objective assessment of a paper’s worth, one can use the citation count (number of times a paper has been cited).   Google Scholar displays citation count for most of the articles it displays. However, it should be noted that citation counts aren’t necessarily an indicator of quality.

In essence I look for interesting papers using keywords that describe things I’m thinking about. Fortunately I’m not doing research for a living so I can afford to read what I want, when I want – providing, of course, it doesn’t get in the way of my regular day job!

When reading papers, I usually keep a highlighter and pencil handy for making notes in the margins (very useful for when I’m writing reviews).  If I’m reading a pdf document, the commenting and highlighting features of Acrobat are very useful.

Finally,  it should be clear that what turns up depends very much on the keywords and phrases one uses. This choice is dictated by ones interests. My professional interests tend towards foundational and philosophical aspects of project management, so my searches and many of my reviews reflect this.

Serendipity at work

I’ve used this technique for about as long as I have been blogging. Along the way I have come across some truly exceptional papers which have influenced the way I think about and do my job.  Below are some posts that were inspired by such papers:

Project management in the post-bureaucratic  organisation: A critique on the use of project management as a means to direct creative and innovative work.  Based on:  Hodgson, D.E. , Project Work: The Legacy of Bureaucratic Control in the Post-Bureaucratic Organization , Organization, Volume 11, pages 81-100 (2004).

A memetic view of project management: Wherein project management is viewed as a collection of ideas that self-propagate. Based on: Whitty, S. J.,  A memetic paradigm of project management, International Journal of Project Management,  Volume 23, pages 575-583 (2005).

Cox’s risk matrix theorem and its implications for project risk management:  Describes some logical flaws in the way  risk matrices are commonly used. Based on:  Cox, L. A., What’s wrong with risk matrices?, Risk Analysis, Volume 28, pages 497-512 (2008)

The user who wasn’t there: on the role of the imagined user in project discourse: Highlights the use of imagined (as opposed to real) users to justify specific design views and/or decisions in projects. Based on:  Ivory, C. and Alderman, N., The imagined user in projects: Articulating competing discourses of space and knowledge work, Ephemera, Volume 9, pages 131-148 (2009).

The myth of the lonely project: Discusses why project managers need to be aware of the history, culture, strategic imperatives and social dynamics of the organisations within which they work. Based on: Engwall, M., No project is an island: linking projects to history and context, Research Policy,Volume 32, pages 789-808 (2003).

The papers referenced above are just a small selection of the interesting ones I have stumbled on in my random rambles through Google Scholar.

…and so, to conclude

Professional project managers rarely have the time (or inclination) to read research papers related to their field. If you don’t browse research papers often,  I hope this piece has  convinced you to give it a try.   Although the time you invest may not get you that new job or promotion, I guarantee that it will give you fresh insights into your profession by leading you from here to serendipity.

Written by K

July 5, 2011 at 6:23 am

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